Mirai Nagasu would like to explain herself.
In less than two weeks at the 2018 Winter Olympics the 24-year-old American figure skater has competed through what she will readily admit was a draining experience, as full of previously unknown success as it was sharp disappointment.
“I think I’ve literally cried my way through these Olympic Games,” she tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview one day after her final performance in Gangneung, South Korea. “It’s been an experience that I will never forget.”
“There have been tears of joy [and] tears of stress and it’s just been an emotional week, and I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself,” she says.
On Feb. 12, in her first of three appearances in Korea, Nagasu made history with a resounding triple axel in the figure skating team event, making her the first U.S. woman to land the notoriously tricky jump in Olympic competition.
That and other strong American performances earned the team a bronze medal.
Nine days later, Nagasu returned for the women’s individual event. But she placed no higher than ninth in either of her two routines and ultimately finished 10th — a drop not just from her individual fourth-place finish at the Winter Olympics eight years ago but from her second-place skate in the team event little more than a week earlier.
Afterward they each faced variations of a question whose answers go beyond any one athlete: Why was America no longer producing podium-worthy women’s skaters?
That concern fed into the moment that has capped Nagasu’s time in the headlines: a series of brief yet controversial comments she made to reporters after her individual free skate on Friday, which doubled as her final Olympic showing.
Discussing the contradictions of her performances on the ice — good and bad — she sounded at once exhausted, satisfied, dismayed and even a bit relieved and said she hoped to compete on Dancing With the Stars “because I want to be a star.”
That quote and others, including one about how she helped “save” America’s medal in the team event and another about competitor Gabrielle Daleman, of Canada, drew scrutiny.
A Sports Illustrated piece called her answers “bizarre” and described her behavior as “like a butterfly at a funeral, oblivious to everything happening around her.” USA Today said the interview was“extraordinary,” while a Los Angeles Times column declared that she could earn a medal for excuse-making alone.
All of that to say: Nagasu is sorry.
“I feel really, really awful about the things I said,” she told PEOPLE on Saturday, in tears. “I feel bad that people think that I was throwing my teammates under the bus because I never wanted to come off that way.”
She regrets the word “save” and not mentioning the other Americans in the team event, some of whom also earned season’s-best scores to help lift the U.S. to the podium.
“I had my dream Olympic skate [in the team event] and to me, I’ve been dreaming of that moment for such a long time, it made me feel like a superhero and superheroes save the day. And I wish I had said that we were all superheroes during the team event,” Nagasu explains. “To watch Chris and Alexa [Knierim, pair skaters], I train with them, to see the way they competed, to see Bradie put out a great performance, and Nathan [Chen] and Adam [Rippon] and [ice dancers] Maia and Alex [Shibutani] — everyone did their part, and so I didn’t mean to say that I saved the team by myself.”
“We were all heroes that day and I apologize, especially to my teammates, for how it came off,” she says.
‘I Have a Lot of Regret’
Nagasu says she did not mean to be mistaken for ungracious or a whiner or a narcissist.
In that moment on Friday, while speaking with reporters, she was working through a tangle of emotion around the most public competitions of her life — one of which helped win her a medal and two others which very much did not.
“I don’t know if I can stress enough how mentally exhausting this all is, and to have gone out there and attacked every single element even though it wasn’t enough — I feel especially bad that my comments weren’t a good representation of me and I came off really poorly,” she says, “I think above all else our job here is to represent Team USA to the best of our ability, and I didn’t do that yesterday and that’s something I have a lot of regret about.”
Beyond whatever reaction it inspired from onlookers earlier, Nagasu on Saturday still seemed to be processing her experience in the spotlight, tearing up throughout her interview with PEOPLE. (She smiled and laughed, too.)
“I’m so grateful to be here,” she says, adding, “This has been a test of my perseverance, and I truly have a new appreciation for the term ‘Olympian,’ because it is so, so difficult to be away from home for three weeks and to be on all the time.”
Of the Dancing With the Stars mention, Nagasu says she was referring to a technique suggested by her sports psychologist after the team event. The psychologist said Nagasu should focus on something else besides trying to repeat her first free skate performance, the thought of which had been hanging around her neck.
“I used that as a distraction and I probably should have kept it to myself. … It didn’t come out the way I wanted it to,” Nagasu says of talking about the reality show, which has seen many Olympians.
“My Olympic moment from the individual event was that I was really able to enjoy my skating, and so that meant a lot to me and I didn’t portray that accurately,” she says. (She told reporters Friday: “I smiled in the middle of my program, which is really rare for me, so I enjoyed myself and I thought of this as my audition for Dancing With the Stars.”)
It’s to Gabrielle Daleman, Nagasu says, that she particularly wants to apologize.
The Canadian skater helped win her country a gold in the team event but turned in an even weaker individual free skate than Nagasu, falling multiple times.
When Nagasu was asked on Friday about why the American women could no longer seem to handle the pressure while skating in the Games, she replied, “I’d like to point out that Gabrielle Daleman, who’s an Olympic gold medalist, also didn’t have a strong outing here.”
But, Nagasu says now, “What people didn’t see is that I hugged her right before I made that comment because I really related to her and I was like, ‘You know, you’re an Olympic gold medalist regardless of how you skated today.’ ”
“I just truly related to her in that moment and we both had disappointing free skates,” Nagasu says, “and I just shouldn’t have brought her into it to be honest.”
‘I Have No Excuse’
More broadly in her sit-down with PEOPLE Nagasu spoke of her Olympic highs and lows this month, acknowledging the sting of her second and third skates — the first which saw her try another triple axel and fall, the second where she changed her mind about the attempt while mid-jump.
Asked what happened when she abandoned that planned third try at the triple axel, Nagasu says:
“I just didn’t get up into the air and [I] bailed, and I have no excuse for that. It’s really hard to watch and even think about, because I nailed so many in practice. I cried about it at home, but I didn’t really want to be so emotional in front of every one. But it sucks to be capable of being able to do such an amazing element and just not be able to do it in competition.”
Between her first free skate, in the team event, and her second, in the individual, Nagasu says she watched the video of her successful triple axel “so many times.”
“It’s been hard to mentally stay strong and to try to mimic the performance that I put out during the team event,” she says.
‘I Have to Be Happy’
Nagasu has her regrets, but she also speaks of finding pride in her performances, despite her mistakes. (And she cannot wait to get home to see her dogs.)
“I think we all know that I’m capable of so much more and I trained and put so much time and effort into it that I wanted more and I envisioned more,” she says.
“I can’t take back the hard work that I did, and so I have to be happy,” she continues. “And I’m really proud of a 10th-place finish, even though I would have liked better. It’s how I performed and what I deserved yesterday and so it’s something that I’m still proud of.”
There will be no other Olympics for Nagasu, but she says she’s not leaving figure skating for a few more seasons. She’s looking at the upcoming world championship as a shot at redemption.
Come the next Winter Games, she’ll plan to cheer on the athletes. She does not, however, plan on dropping her triple axel.
“I only did it once, but it’s something that I won’t forget because no one can take that away from me,” she says. “And to have done it not for myself but for my team and for Team USA, I think I will remember that the most.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.